The Boy Scouts of America is expected Monday to end its blanket ban on gay leaders – a turning point for an organization that has been in turmoil over the issue.
But some scouting groups will still be able to limit leadership jobs to heterosexuals.
To gain the acquiescence of conservative religious groups that sponsor many dens and troops, like the Mormon and Roman Catholic churches, the policy will allow church-run units to pick leaders who agree with their moral precepts.
“There are differences of opinion, and we need to be respectful of them,” said Michael Harrison, a businessman who led the Boy Scouts in Orange County, Calif., and is one of many leaders who lobbied internally for change. “It doesn’t mean the Mormons have to pick a gay scoutmaster, but please don’t tell the Unitarians they can’t.”
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Already struggling to reverse a long-term decline in membership, the Boy Scouts have been increasingly consumed over the past two decades by battles over the exclusion of gay people, divisions that threatened to fracture the organization. Conservative partners saw the policy as a bulwark against unwanted social change, but the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay stance was costing it public support and cachet as well as corporate funders, and lately has brought on the threat of costly lawsuits.
In a contentious meeting in 2013, the Scouts decided to permit participation by gay youths but not adults. On Monday, bowing to still-accelerating shifts in opinion and law, the Scouts will relax their policy barring openly gay adults from serving as den leaders, scoutmasters and camp counselors who are at the heart of the scouting experience.
On Monday, the Scouts will also bar discrimination based on sexual orientation in all official facilities and paying jobs across the country, heading off potential suits and violations of employment discrimination laws.
But to keep some of the larger church sponsors in the fold, Scout executives concluded that they must allow for diverse policies for local volunteers. Church-based units may “continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own,” according to a statement that the Scouts’ top executives sent this month to regional board members.
The step, if incomplete in the view of many gay rights campaigners, is nonetheless a momentous one for an organization that has struggled to keep the allegiance of conservatives as it faced open rebellion from more liberal regions.
The proposal follows a public warning in May by Robert M. Gates, the Scouts’ voluntary two-year president and a former defense secretary, that the ban on gay adults “cannot be sustained.” The national governing board, which includes scores of corporate, civic and church leaders who share a devotion to scouting, is expected to provide overwhelming support for the resolution in a meeting to be conducted Monday by telephone.
With this latest change, Gates and other Scout executives hope to defuse an issue that has caused growing turmoil, even as membership – more than 2.4 million youths in 2014, with nearly 1 million adult volunteers – has steadily declined. Over time, the share of units sponsored by churches of all denominations has climbed to 70 percent, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the United Methodists and the Roman Catholics accounting for the largest shares.
“It’s a great day for America and for scouting,” David Boies, a prominent lawyer, said of Monday’s expected announcement.
His firm helped create pressure for change, threatening to sue the Boy Scouts if the organization tried to bar a gay Eagle Scout from a camp job this summer in New York. Boies has also been a legal champion of same-sex marriage.
But Boies added: “I think this will be a way station on the road to full equality,” and he questioned whether the exemption for religious sponsors could endure.
Gates has won praise for acting decisively to resolve a conflict that threatened to fracture the Boy Scouts. An Eagle Scout who ran the CIA and who served as defense secretary under Republican and Democratic presidents, he oversaw the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.
“Because of his history, he was in a position to exercise leadership on this issue,” said Zach Wahls, 24, an Eagle Scout and executive director of Scouts for Equality, which has mounted public campaigns for change. “The people in the Scouts trusted him to handle it well.”
The Boy Scouts have a tortured history on gay rights, reflecting both the wider culture wars and the pull of regions and partners with conflicting views.
In 2000, the Scouts’ exclusionary policy prevailed before the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the court said the Scouts had the right to force out a gay assistant scoutmaster because the private organization’s stance that homosexuality was not “morally straight” was part of the group’s “expressive message.”
But the victory proved Pyrrhic. Many schools and public agencies severed their ties. At the same time, the share of religious sponsors climbed, and the Scouts began attracting more conservative families, said Richard Ellis, a political scientist at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and author of the 2014 book “Judging the Boy Scouts of America: Gay Rights, Freedom of Association and the Dale Case.”
Now, he said, “the Boy Scouts are playing catch-up” as they seek a broader constituency.
The issue reached a boiling point over the past three years. In 2012, the group announced that it would retain the ban on gay members. But gay rights groups like GLAAD and Scouts for Equality helped publicize cases of discrimination and push several major corporate donors, including Intel, UPS and Merck, to withdraw their support.
In 2013, the national leadership proposed what proved to be an illusory middle ground – to permit gay youths, a less sensitive issue with conservatives, but to continue to ban openly gay adults.
The change was welcomed but brought little peace. More corporate donors withdrew, and lawsuits claiming illegal discrimination under state laws were brewing that, the Scouts’ own lawyers concluded, the group was sure to lose.
An acute legal threat emerged this year from the Greater New York Councils, in New York City. In a public challenge designed to force the issue, the affiliate hired Pascal Tessier, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout and gay activist, as a camp counselor.
Boies and his firm announced that they would represent Pascal and that they were ready to sue under New York law if the Scouts’ national headquarters rescinded the job offer.
“We tried to structure this so that the national organization didn’t have any realistic alternative but to change policy,” Boies said in an interview.
In the end, national officials did not interfere. Instead, at the Scouts’ annual meeting in May, Gates said the Boy Scouts must quickly change before the courts made them do so.
After the vote to permit gay youths in 2013, some evangelical Christian churches ended their sponsorships, and membership declined by 6 percent, compared with declines of 2 percent to 4 percent in previous years. Youth membership fell again in 2014, by 7 percent.
But Gates appears to have persuaded major sponsors, including the Mormons and the Roman Catholics, to accept the new policy for adults so long as their own units are given latitude. In a recent statement, the Mormon Church reiterated its “right to select Scout leaders who adhere to moral and religious principles that are consistent with our doctrines and beliefs.”
In May, after Gates’ plea, Edward P. Martin, chairman of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, said: “We agree with Mr. Gates that there is cause to act. We also agree with Mr. Gates that chartered organizations must be allowed ‘to establish leadership standards consistent with their faith.’”
Further defections are likely, especially by Southern evangelical members, said Jay L. Lenrow, a lawyer and voluntary Scouts executive from Baltimore who, like Harrison, has long pushed for change from within.
“But I think we’ve lost far more people over the last 14 or 15 years because we were not inclusive,” said Lenrow, who served as chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, among other senior roles.